But the last day you did not need the rope:
reaching the end of where you had to go
you laid yourself down on the lowest step.
And now, said the Sybil, looking at me,
it’s your turn: hoc labor, hic opus est.
Climbing back. That’s the hard part.
These are the last lines from ‘What the Sybil said’. (Originally, she warned Aeneas that it was easy to go down to the Underworld, but hard to get back up.) Catching your Breath seems to embody Christine Webb’s climbing back. Christine’s partner died several years ago, and many of the poems remember their love and life together, and her partner’s illness and death. I should state here, in line with this blog’s reviewing policy, that I know Christine. Here is part of ‘After that Hour’, the first poem in the book:
..after that hour of sleep, you woke, and made
no gesture of distress, but simply laid
your hands in mine. It seemed easy to die
after that hour of sleep: you woke, and made
a little sound, between a cough and sigh.
This moving, lyrical poem is a double triolet. The form adds a dignity, a sort of holding-back to the grief as lines are repeated. The repetition also mimics the way the speaker keeps “revisiting” the hour of death. The language is simple and the syntax skilful, holding the poem together and making the repeated lines feel natural.
The second poem, ‘Salt’, makes it clear that this book is going to be full of surprises. It’s a story and starts with a woman talking:
‘Pig were allus a big job. Throat
to cut, quarts of blood.’
It goes in a direction you could not possibly imagine. There’s a passage near the end that I’m longing to quote, but then the hairs wouldn’t rise on the back of your neck as you begin to understand.
Catching your Breath is so well structured that it invites one to read from front to back - a rarity with poetry collections, I think. The book takes its name from the title of a series of beautifully constructed sonnets in non-rhyming couplets, about Christine’s life with her partner. These are spread throughout the book in groups of 3-5 poems. In between are other poems, which seem all the fresher for being next to the sonnets, and the other way around too. Throughout there is the same intelligence, skill and love of language. The tone varies: it encompasses elegy, humour, and enthusiasm for life, and can be both wry and forthright. There are a few poems that verge, for me, on the sentimental but usually this is kept well back. One of the early sonnets, ‘Skip Lane’, starts:
Don’t you think my husband’s sweet, you said
..during six weeks of frosty starlight, shivering
in Skip Lane, not daring to touch each other,
hoping that one of us would break through the talk
of politics, God, depression, with a simple kiss.
By now it’s clear the relationship is a lesbian one, and several poems touch, very subtly, on the psychological and social barriers there must have been to this when the two women got together over 40 years ago.
Subtlety is a characteristic of the book. The recurring theme of breath never seems laboured or obvious. At the same time, the later poems don’t shrink from the drudgery and agony of nursing a dying partner. There is a sort of resoluteness about them, sometimes mixed with humour as in ‘Night Call’ which mixes up electricals and a catheter when a nurse who’s previously fixed the one comes to fix the other:
We wash you out again, we rock
and tilt you on the bed, pinch and elevate
the snaking plastic. At last it warms with yellow.
The versions of Horace Odes are a surprise and a pleasure. They work very well as a foil for the sonnets: overlapping themes, different time and place, contrasting forms; and they are so beautifully done that I wonder whether Christine might write more and make a book of them. She slants them slightly, as if interpreting him for us, which conveys his detachment and makes the poems feel very fresh. Here is the beginning of ‘Horace’s Years’ (Odes II, 14, the famous Eheu fugaces):
They’re flying away, he says, the years, the years
and it’s no use promising to live
an upright life,
keep the rules, pay your taxes, gift-aid
sums to the poor: none of this impresses
the tearless god…
She uses the same device in her version of Exegi monumentum which starts:
He’s made, he says, a better monument
The final poem, ‘Caliban’, is in Caliban’s voice when he’s left on the island at the end of The Tempest, and is rediscovering it.
Tomorrow is another feast of waking…
The reader feels that the climbing back up is happening, though the climber has changed. The elegies in this book are very moving and I think people similarly bereaved will find much in them that’s truthful. Somewhere recently I read, or heard, a comment that there’d been too many books recently by people mourning their partners: such as Penelope Shuttle, Christopher Reid, and in prose Joan Didion. In the US Mark Doty and Mary Oliver of course, among others. What seems surprising is that there aren’t more earlier collections like Douglas Dunn’s Elegies which was published in 1985. Perhaps there are and I just don’t know them. or maybe it just wasn’t done… Anyway, how there can be too many books about dying? It’s still going on; people who write about it don’t do it because it’s suddenly fashionable, but because it’s happened to them. Christine’s book is worthy to join those mentioned above.
Catching your Breath is published by Cinnamon Press. She read from it at the Torriano last Sunday - a delight, as she reads so well - loudly, with liveliness, showing her relish for words, the tone of the elegies perfectly judged. Christine’s first book, After Babel, came from Peterloo but is still available on Amazon. She has some poems on Poetry pf.